The studio album has always been a slippery prospect for any jam band worth taking seriously. Even the earliest champions of live exploration (Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, etc.) turned in their share of notoriously spotty or confusing studio recordings, much preferring the stage as a place for their craft to really take form. Long-running jam-band institution Phish follow this to a T, releasing scads of live recordings that tend to find superior readings of tunes that come off stuffy or lifeless in their studio versions.
On Halloween in 2013, Phish began their second set with a somewhat esoteric reference to golf, of all things: “You’ll never win a major only shooting par.” The lyric belongs to “Wingsuit”, the first of 12 songs Phish debuted that night as a yet-to-be-recorded future album. Although some fans felt tricked out of the band’s usual Halloween cover album tradition, for me and for many other phans, it was pure treat. In the ensuing eight months, we’ve replayed 10/31/13 set II over and over again, analyzing meanings, contextualizing the event, and nerding out, all the while pontificating on how the eventual album would sound.
Let's say you wanted to write a Phish album in 2014. You might well work in the words "rolling" (high-five, club kids!) and "wombat" (because it's a hilarious word, duh), and name-check recurring Phish-lyric character Wilson. Most important, you'd write optimistic songs that can be jammed all the way up to our depleted ozone in concert. Phish do all this on their 12th studio LP – struggling to transform the onstage magic into bits and bytes, and mostly nailing it.
The conventional wisdom on Phish’s studio albums has been that they just aren’t very good. Weirdly, this narrative has come from two distinct camps. The critical community has generally not been in tune with their stew of funk, prog-rock, bluegrass, jazz, and whatever else the band feels like trying. There’s also been plenty of excoriation (sometimes justified) for the band’s lackluster attention to songcraft.
Jerry Garcia died the day that Netscape held their IPO. What place do jam bands occupy on the artistic horizon of the west following the internet bubble? The 2008 financial meltdown? New York’s Moonalice is hardly the most lauded jam band of the new millennium, but they seem worth mentioning; frontman Roger McNamee funds the band’s touring with private equity from a career in investment banking. The image of a truck full of young adults crusted with sweat, shit, and patchouli, braving the summer heat with nothing but a tank of acid Kool-Aid to cool them down, all in the name of the powerful and emancipatory MUSIC, has faded and, in its old age, been replaced by digital-camera JPEGs of men like McNamee in dress shirts with loosened collars.
In hip-hop and dancehall, where singles and mixtapes build audiences, the official debut album is less an introduction than a graduation. So it is with “Where We Come From” (Mixpak), the debut album by Popcaan, born Andre Jay Sutherland, who’s already one of Jamaica’s top dancehall ….